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  • Adam Stubbings

Dons Down Rovers: Doncaster Rovers 1-2 AFC Wimbledon

There was to be no glorious return for fans to the Keepmoat Stadium on Saturday, as visitors AFC Wimbledon came away from the 2021/22 opener with all three points. Their 2-1 comeback victory ensured defeat for Richie Wellens in his first game as Doncaster Rovers manager and underlined the scale of the task ahead for everyone trying to embark on this new era at the club.

Strangers in Red

The home side cut a disjointed, disappointing figure for large spells of the match which is perhaps no surprise, considering the fact that Wellens named no less than ten new players in his first starting XI including two who signed only the day before. Captain Tom Anderson was the only familiar face to Rovers fans (discounting the returning Tommy Rowe, back after two years at Bristol City) and the lack of familiarity among the players was clear to see from the get-go.

Wimbledon were the side to impose themselves on proceedings early, knocking the ball about well and working hard to regularly get the ball into the wide areas for the full-backs and attacking midfielders to run onto and turn into danger. Nesta Guinness-Walker and Luke McCormick were a solid duo down the left, keeping Kyle Knoyle and Charlie Seaman busy, whilst Ayoub Assal created space with his movement in the centre, and it is no surprise that Assal and McCormick were the players who ultimately won the game for the Dons.

Those two had the guile and creativity to trouble Rovers’ defence all day, and they did just that. Assal saw a first half chance stopped by debutant keeper Pontus Dahlberg but the warning signs were there as he broke through the defensive line with ease after Aidan Barlow had lost possession inside the Rovers half, and he made no mistake after the break to slot home and cancel out Charlie Seaman’s opener after another mix-up in the home side’s back four.

McCormick then won it for the visitors on his debut with a deft free kick from just outside the box, given for handball against Matt Smith. Dahlberg seemed to have issues lining up his wall for such a central set piece, but what cost Rovers in the end was the fact that the shot went through the legs of Tommy Rowe and into the corner with Dahlberg at full stretch. It was no less than Wimbledon deserved in truth, as Rovers had shown little cohesion or intent all afternoon and made life hard for themselves with frailties at the back coming to the fore.

Flaky Forwards, Missing Midfield

It’s fair to say that pre-season has been tough for Rovers, with disruption caused by a positive Covid-19 case early in the training schedule causing the cancellation of one game, severely compromised a second and left many first team players unable to train for nearly a fortnight. Add to that the fact that the group has been littered with trialists for the entirety of the build-up to this weekend, and the cherry on top that was senior forwards Fejiri Okenabirhie and Jordy Hiwula going down with injuries, Rovers were never likely to come flying out of the blocks in League One.

The starting XI against Wimbledon almost picked itself, with Omar Bogle the only surprise omission, restricted to a second half substitute appearance due to injury himself. The front line was extremely youthful and makeshift, with 18-year-old Tiago Cukur leading the line on his professional debut flanked by the inexperienced Aidan Barlow and converted right back Charlie Seaman. Seaman got himself on the scoresheet with a nice finish to put Rovers ahead, but they couldn’t build on the lead as Cukur tired and the midfield failed to get a grip on things.

That midfield was also affected by the pre-season uncertainty, with Ben Close’s inability to stamp his mark surely down to the fact he recently had Covid-19 and was unable to train until the middle of last week. In time he will be able to demonstrate his qualities but this was not his day, whilst Matt Smith and Dan Gardner also struggled to find a footing in the first half particularly. John Bostock looked composed off the bench in the playmaker role though, so if he can get fully fit soon he could be a difference maker.

Wellens is still looking for that elusive holding midfielder to bring in, likely on loan from a higher league, which will hopefully have a similar impact to the signing of Matt Smith (the original) last season weeks after the campaign had got underway. It will take time to find the right combination in this area and an addition there and in attack could yet make a world of difference to Rovers’ prospects this season.

Taking Time

The club hierarchy from Wellens up have been quick to talk up this season as one for a ‘rebuild’ and as long as signs of progress start to appear quickly, fans should be able to get on board with that. The majority of the playing squad has altered from last season along with a new management team coming in, meaning this first few weeks will be far from smooth to witness. Tough games lie ahead, with trips to local rivals Sheffield Wednesday and Rotherham looking ominous at present.

Reasons to be optimistic did appear on the pitch against Wimbledon, however. Kyle Knoyle looked a lively presence on the right hand side for the full 90 minutes, whilst goalscorer Seaman showed he had enough about him to contribute after a spell on loan in non-league last year. Watford duo Dahlberg and Cukur both appear to be astute loan signings and will look all the better for match fitness and time spent bedding into their new surroundings, and Tommy Rowe played as if he had never left, typically committed and willing to drive the team forward regularly.

Getting injured players back would also alter the outlook significantly, but for the time being Wellens will have to try and drag something extra out of some of his new recruits to plug the gap created by the likes of Okenabirhie and Jon Taylor being absent. It will be important to get off the mark in League One over the next few weeks, but Tuesday night’s trip to Walsall in the Carabao Cup represents a real opportunity to build some confidence and, crucially, cohesion and understanding within the playing squad.

Rome was not built in a day, as the old adage goes, and ‘Wellensball’ will not come to fruition in just one game.

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